It seems like you can't watch the news these days without seeing another scary story—terrorist attack. Hate crime. Active shooter. It's enough to make most parents want to bundle their kids off to a bomb shelter to keep them safe.
But even though you're afraid—and even though it may seem like it's happening everywhere— in reality, you're about as likely to win the lottery as you are to be involved in an attack of this sort. "The likelihood is less than being struck by lightning," says Randy Spivey, founder of the Center for Personal Protection & Safety in Reston, Virginia. "We want to enjoy the world that's out there, but do that in a safe way. Having a little training and understanding can minimize the chances it happens to you."
But how do you prep your kids—and yourselves—for the worst-case scenario without developing a paranoia of public spaces? Here's how to get started with this kind of safety training.
1. Know what your child can handle.
You probably want to keep it simpler for, say, a 6-year-old, but Spivey says that fifth- or sixth-graders should be ready for a franker talk about what could happen and how they could get out of violent situations safely. "You want to be sure they're trained on recognizing warning signs that violence may be ready to erupt, and know what tools are available," he says. "It's really important for ages 12 and up to have a conversation so they know if they're at a concert, or sporting event, and extreme violence breaks out, they need to take action."
Spivey says it can be especially important to talk about different ways you can react in an emergency, given that most schools train kids in only one response—hiding in lockdown—which isn't always the best course of action. Spivey points to Sandy Hook and the story of one survivor, whose grandmother he met at one of his training sessions. "As the shooter walked into the doorway, this little 5-year-old had the presence of mind to run," he says. "She was the only child in that room that survived."
2. Be alert when you're in public spaces.
Let's face it: With everything we have going on, it's pretty common to be distracted when we're out and about—but that could mean that you walk right into a dangerous situation. "We walk around with heads buried in iPhones," Spivey says. "Particularly when we're coming out of an exciting event like a concert, our focus may not be on our surroundings." We need to pay attention to what's going on around us, he says, and teach our kids to do the same.
3. Keep an eye out for things that aren't quite right.
In cases of extreme violence, there's often a sign that something's about to happen—the trick is to recognize when something doesn't quite fit. "What we know is that so many times when extreme violence happens, there are recognizable signs beforehand," Spivey says. "[At the Manchester attack,] a 22-year-old man with backpack standing by himself would have stood out. We need to look for things that don't fit in when we're in public environments—a backpack left alone, someone who sticks out."
4. Know your three "outs."
Spivey points out that there isn't one fail-safe course of action that works in every scenario—and that you need to think quickly, and take action. "Before first responders arrive, you are the immediate responders," Spivey says. "What you do or don't do in the five minutes before police arrive determines whether you survive."
You have, essentially, three outs: get out, hide out, or take them out. "Getting out means getting away from where the violence is occurring—running away," Spivey says. "If you can't do that, you should hide out—and hiding under the desk isn't hiding. You need to barricade yourself in somewhere by locking and blocking the door. The third option is to take the person out, and do everything you can to defend yourself." That scenario isn't as far-fetched as you might think—he points out that in several violent situations, unarmed people were able to take out a shooter safely.
5. Make an emergency plan.
An emergency plan can help you reunite with loved ones in any sort of a situation, even if it's something as simple as a kid who wanders away from the group in an amusement park. When you're out, set up an emergency plan that includes a location where you could meet up and how to reach each other if you get separated. Younger kids should have your cell number memorized or available in another way—on a slip of paper in a pocket, for instance. With older kids, share tips like using text if cell service becomes spotty, as it often does when usage spikes in the midst of an event like a terrorist attack. "Kids need to understand how to get a hold of somebody quickly," Spivey says.
6. Don't (necessarily) follow the crowd.
It can be all too easy to stay with the group and run when you're in a violent situation, but Spivey suggests looking for another less-traveled way out of the area. "Sometimes, the bomb or violence is designed to drive people into a location with another bomb," he says. "If everybody is now running in a certain direction, you still want to get away, but you may not want to go in that direction."
7. Don't panic.
It's easier said than done, but it's important to stay as calm as possible and avoid falling victim to the biggest danger—freezing in panic. "We don't want to be fearful to the point where it paralyzes us," Spivey says. "You are the key to whether you get out of there alive. Knowing what to do can help you feel empowered and minimize the chances that it happens to you."